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Face transplants: Some experts still question risks associated with operation

Following the death of the first face transplant patient, some experts say the risks are too great given the surgery is not life-saving.

Isabelle Dinoire, the woman who received the world's first partial face transplant
Isabelle Dinoire, the woman who received the world's first partial face transplant
Image: Michel Spingler/Press Association

TEN YEARS AND 36 operations later, the face transplant remains a tricky endeavour with a long list of health and mental risks to be weighed against the benefits, experts say.

A major procedure, the transplants help many patients resume basic tasks such as breathing, eating and speaking, and restores non-verbal communication through smiles and frowns.

For many, the big change is being able to appear in public without being stared at.

But recipients also encounter an uphill psychological battle living with someone else’s face, and life-long reliance on immunosuppressant medicines with all the accompanying side-effects.

Suppressing the immune system

Immunosuppressants rein in the body’s immune system, which can target a transplant organ as a foreign intruder to be attacked and wiped out. But in checking this protective response, the body is left vulnerable to a wide array of infections and cancers.

“Anti-rejection treatments take a heavy toll on patients,” Paris-based plastic surgeon Jean-Pierre Meningaud said after the announcement of the death of the world’s first face graft recipient, Isabelle Dinoire, this week.

Meningaud, who has performed seven face transplants, called for a hold on the procedure pending advances in immunosuppressing therapy.

Every single one of his patients have had at least one rejection episode, “which leads to higher doses of drugs, and with them, the risks”.

Two of Meningaud’s seven patients have died – one of whom took their own life.

The university hospital of Amiens-Picardie, where Dinoire’s operation was performed in November 2005, said finding the right “balance” between protecting the new face and the rest of the body was a tall order.

Chimp Attack-Face Transplant Charla Nash received a face transplant in 2010 after being attacked by a chimpanzee Source: AP/Press Association Images

Other risks

On top of the risk of tumours and infections, the hospital said, immunosuppressants can have severe side-effects such as diabetes, diminished kidney function and osteoporosis.

So far, six of the 36 people to have received face transplants globally since 2005 have died.

The operation itself is long, complex and not without risks, and recovery is long, say the experts.

“There are some experts that question the risk associated with face transplantation as it is not a life-saving operation,” the Transplantation Services department of the University of California in Los Angeles states on its website.

However, the candidates with facial disfigurement live with social isolation and fear of rejection from their appearance affecting their quality of life.

For Meningaud’s colleague Laurent Lantieri, the procedure must be reserved for severely disfigured people with no alternative, such as regular plastic surgery.

“There has not been enough of a revolution in immunology since these questions were first raised… to warrant widespread use of the technique,” he said on France 5 television.

Transplant patients

Maimed by her pet Labrador, Dinoire received part of a brain-dead person’s face in a historic, 15-hour operation at the age of 38.

She died in April this year from a rare tumour which the hospital said “cannot be scientifically linked to immunosuppressant treatment” she was taking.

Since the transplant, Dinoire had suffered many infections, another tumour, diminished kidney function and high blood pressure.

For face transplant recipient Jerome Hamon, however, the procedure has been a life-changer.

“I have changed, I am more open towards other people,” he said on French radio after news broke of Dinoire’s death.

The looks, the teasing, it has all disappeared. I finally feel like I’m living.

© AFP 2016 

Read: Woman who had world’s first face transplant dies aged 49

Read: Sex could be great for ageing women’s health – but risky for older men

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